We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.
An assistant English professor, an engineering professor, and a literary luminary don’t walk into a bar. Being self-professed geeks, they instead have a discussion before an intimate gathering of scholars and fans. The punchline to this non-joke is cross-discipline dialog to deliver the future we want.
Monday’s panel at Arizona State University (ASU) social sciences building was titled “Nerd talk, geek speak, and the challenges of 21st century knowledge silos.” The panel featured luminary author Neal Stephenson (Reamde, Snow Crash, etc.), social media scholar Alice Daer, and structural engineer Keith Hjelmstad on the need for interdisciplinary dialog.
Stephenson and Hjelmstad initially came together to brainstorm over the optimal tower from which to launch rockets. That tower project fueled a collaboration with ASU Center for Science and the Imagination called the Hieroglyph project. ASU calls the project a cross-discipline collaboration on “science fiction stories that envision futures radically changed by major technological innovation,” providing the “foundation for an anthology of fiction and non-fiction to be published in the near future.”
Stephenson’s tower project contribution to Hieroglyph calls for a rocket launchpad 15-20 kilometers tall. By way of reference, the current tallest building, Burj Khalifa in Dubai, is 828 meters, so Hieroglyph literally reaches for the stars.
If this sounds similar to the Tomorrow Project anthologies, led by Intel futurist Brian David Johnson to facilitate dialog about the future, it is. It’s no coincidence that another iteration of the Tomorrow Project (Tomorrow Project USA), is, like Hieroglyph, a recently-kicked-off collaboration with the ASU center. The center’s aim is to help “reignite humanity’s grand ambitions for innovation and discovery.”
Hieroglyph and Tomorrow Project share a techno-optimism for the future, a foundation of hard science, and the importance of building things. Acclaimed author Stephenson finds “the tendency to write dystopian is a convenience.” But where Tomorrow Project takes hard science based on current Intel lab work to the mainstream through storytelling, Hieroglyph aims to inspire and rally the next generation of STEM experts around common visions. As Stephenson explained in the panel:
“To build any engineering system or product you typically get a lot of engineers working on it at the same time. All of that coordination and communication is expensive. Meetings take a lot of time. Maybe if you’ve got a story that everyone can read that makes sense and is technically sound … they get the same shared idea what the goal is and it can help coordinate the activities of all these people. Kind of the way a magnet under a car can get all the little iron filings to all line up in a seemingly magical way. I’m painting a very rosy picture of the possible utility of science fiction to engineering, but it’s at least kind of an interesting idea, and it seems worthy of an experiment. And so Hieroglyph is the experiment we’ve launched to explore that. The nice thing is if the experiment totally fails and these stories have no practical utility whatsoever to actually building anything we’ll still have a nice book. And if the experiment has a positive outcome maybe we can actually dislodge ourselves from what I see as the stasis we’ve been stuck in for the last few decades and get some interesting projects going.”
To further help facilitate cross-discipline dialog, Daer explores the language of geeks, exploring media literacy beyond production/consumption to participation. Participation, for geeks, includes racking up cultural equity by contributing to memes like “Your Argument is Invalid.”
ASU plans to be the hub from which a confluence of dialog about the future hopefully leads to action. Building these kind of metaphorical cross-discipinary bridges may actually lead to literal towers — the kind you can launch rockets from.
Learn more about ASU Center for Science and the Imagination collaborations, including Hieroglyph and Tomorrow Project USA
Visit the Intel Tomorrow Project website